Last May I offered ten tips for raising sexually healthy Orthodox daughters. In response to that column, a number of readers requested a follow-up, offering ten tips for raising sexually healthy Orthodox sons.
In offering guidelines for preparing our sons for a meaningful, healthy and satisfying marital and sexual life, I have no intention of debating or discussing the Halachic aspects pertaining to sexual expression and behavior. Rather, I draw from research and clinical experience in addressing sexual issues unique to traditional and religious populations.
Young Orthodox men are at a disadvantage. Much has been written about the difficulties that young Orthodox women experience in the transition from having little or no physical contact with a man before marriage, to engaging in sexual intercourse on the wedding night. However, the ‘first time’ may be anxiety- provoking for young men as well. Perhaps due to gender stereotypes that attribute desire for intimacy to women, and sexual readiness to men, the latter are more often perceived to be ready, willing and able to function sexually.
In a study conducted by my colleagues and myself on the sexual lives of Orthodox women, 64% of the 400 women interviewed reported receiving insufficient preparation for marriage. Many were told by their Kallah instructors “your husband will know what to do.” Drawing from my clinical experience with young couples, this is often not the case.
In addition to the disadvantage that religious boys have of being expected to ‘lead the way’, often with little actual information or education, they may enter marriage with unrealistic expectations and some may even anticipate that a sexual paradise, to which they are now entitled, awaits them.
Dr. Naomi Grumet, founder of the Eden Center studied the disparate sexual messages received by 50 religious couples, and concluded that while female sexual desire was downplayed or not addressed by their teachers prior to marriage, young men received the implicit message that sexual desire was healthy and natural, but was to be fulfilled only in the context of marriage. The men reported being taught that they should ‘hang in there’, because marriage would be their lifeline, and their wives, their saviors.
Raising sexually healthy young men involves acknowledging that sexual desires are normal, even as sexual activity is proscribed before marriage. However, to avoid framing marriage as the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, and their wives as the object by which they may now end their ‘struggle’, sexual activity in marriage should be emphasized as a mutual and consensual expression of intimacy and love.
And now for the ten tips:
Raise your sons to listen: The best way to teach the art of listening is by example. Listen carefully when he speaks to you, and reflect on what he says. In this way you teach him to listen to his partner, and to expect to be heard. This creates the foundation for good communication, which is a vital component of a good sexual relationship.
Provide empathy: “I know you feel afraid, (or angry, sad, jealous etc.) “ Validating emotions helps in the development of boys who are able to talk about their feelings and be empathic to others. This will help them in developing an authentic, intimate and loving relationship, which is an essential building block for good sex.
Answer questions openly and honestly: Kids are curious and begin asking questions about gender and sex early. How we answer when they are young sets the tone for whether they will dare asking in the future. If parents don’t provide answers, children will search for them on their own, and their sources of information may be inaccurate at best and damaging at worst.
Teach values regarding sexuality, separating values from facts. Providing information about the human body, sex, reproduction, hygiene, boundaries and consent does not imply that you condone engaging in premarital sexual behaviors. Teach your children not to have sex before marriage because it is against Torah values, not because it is unhealthy, dangerous, aversive or disgusting.
Don’t tell your son that by touching a girl he is disrespecting her. This sends the message that a girl who engages in touch, with agency and mutual consent, is not deserving of respect. Rather, explain that if he doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, pushes her into doing things with which she is uncomfortable, or takes advantage of her simply for his own gratification, that is disrespectful.
Empower, don’t scare him: If he can say no to a cheeseburger, avoid slanderous conversation and keep his hands off his cellphone on Shabbat, he can control himself sitting next to a girl on the bus. Impulse control is an important human, as well as Jewish value. If he is uncomfortable and needs boundaries, teach him that it is his responsibility to remove himself from temptation.
Explain that sexual arousal is a natural part of being human. In my sex therapy practice, married religious men presenting with sexual difficulties often report that sexual arousal triggers feelings of guilt and anxiety, associated with the conflicted experience of sexual arousal or activity before marriage. A respected rabbi once confided to me “if only the yeshiva boys would feel as guilty with lying or gossiping as they do with having sexual feelings.”
Teach him responsibility. Educate your sons that sexual behavior is a conscious choice and not something that “just happens.” If they choose to engage in sexual activity, it requires communication, respecting boundaries, and depending on where those boundaries are (mutually) negotiated, perhaps even birth control.
Don’t assume sexual activity. Just because your son has been going out with a girl for an extended period, or spends time alone with her, it does not mean that they are being physically intimate. Disparaging and suspicious comments can be hurtful and may sever the lines of communication. If you want to know, ask the questions directly and non-judgmentally.
In preparation for marriage, teach your son that sex is about intimacy and interpersonal communication, not just physical function. He may be made anxious by premarital instruction that often emphasizes goals and performance. Explain that while marital sex is sanctioned, boundaries still must be respected. Most importantly, encourage him to stay mindful, present and connected to his partner, and rather than focus on achieving goals, appreciate and enjoy the journey they are about to embark upon together.